“The Quick and Sick of Life”

Editor John Barrios, Poetry, May 30th, 2013

Pulling apart a house I am walking by. Shattering the windows...

reflections on elizabeth jennings

“The Quick and Sick of Life.” 1

Personal reflections on the poetry of Elizabeth Jennings


“We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.”2

In March of 2012 I was diagnosed with depression. I knew things were not going well for a variety of reasons, but I still felt like myself. I started taking pills. I started on the “big pharma” and trusted in my therapists. At first I started to feel good again, almost great. A pendulum of feelings, swinging grief into joy into grief into joy, cutting me in half with every quick swinging transition.

I often ask the Universe for help. I often ask the Universe for things. When I keep my eyes open, my heart open, these things are usually given to me.

A couch.

A table.

A pen.

Also the emotional. But those gifts are more difficult to see at first.


“The cure, as much as the disease, appals.” 3

A book.

poet elizabeth jenningsI came across Collected Poems, 1967 by Elizabeth Jennings on a dump cart at the bookstore I work part time at. I usually grab any poetry, if it’s essentially free, and open myself up to it. For the most part it is metered, catholic-infused poetry I find little value in. But then came the poems on her mental illness. They sought me out and it took me a short time, but we found each other. I can only say, in rereading them “post” depression, that what I valued in them came about during my own ride in the backseat.

“It does not seem a time for lucid rhyming;
Too much disturbs.”4

I wonder if I would have been institutionalized if it were the late Fifties, or early Sixties. Most likely, due to the fact that I am male, I would not.

“So Much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.”4

Comfort. Nothing new for an essay. But then things shifted for me.

reflections on elizabeth jennings
I stayed up all night almost every night for about two months. I used every Lego in the house and built a Babel Tower, floor to ceiling. My heart burst with pride. I couldn’t wait to wake the boy from his slumber to see what Dad had accomplished. Two days later I had no memory of building, or having a Lego Babel Tower.

I would soon have no memories.

I would soon forget what I was talking about mid-sentence. I learned how to casually pretend like I was distracted. Until I forgot why I was distracted and who I was with.

I was scared when I was lucid.

So we changed the channels like a television by changing my prescription.

Soon I was planning a long walk from Portland, OR to Buffalo, NY. I calculated it would take two weeks. I had about twenty bucks and my favorite candy bar. I figured out my route in my head, as I’ve driven it many times in my years. I relived portions of the country from memory and imagined how exquisite they would be on foot. How joyful America would be to have me. I knew I had two days free to myself, yet two weeks seemed plausible.

My aches in these regards are minor in comparison to Elizabeth Jennings. But life is not about comparison. Comparison can poison the mind.

What truly scared me were the scenes in my head. Scenes I have had for years yet only on medication did I recognize as unhealthy.

When enraged, in depression, my mind would break the world into splinters. What took three seconds, would feel like hours or a day in my mind. Pulling apart a house I am walking by. Shattering the windows; sharding the shards; splintering the wood with my fingernails. Burning in the fire just to feel a need to breathe. This while walking, eating ice cream, being mindless in a potentially joyful moment of life. The telephone pole, in a heartbeat, is ripped down and I am spiked fully with the splinters my hands have made of it.

I bleed and feel healed in the blood.

These are my true depressions.

“yet I still fight the stronger
Terror – oblivion – the needle thrusts in”5

reflections on elizabeth jenningsI wore a beard for about six weeks. One day I woke up and looked in the mirror and wondered where this beard had come from. I hate wearing beards. I can’t stand seeing hair on my face in my peripheral vision. It’s like dirt I can’t wipe off my face. So I shaved. I sort of laughed it off. Then a couple days later, I reached up to feel my facial hair and it was gone. It was a shock to me. Where was my beard. I had forgotten I shaved it off. I had forgotten I had grown it. I had lost my sense of John.

This led me to the conclusion “big pharma” was not working for me, but against me.

I am now clean of the pills. I am clean of the muddy relationships. I am not healed. I am not home. Elizabeth Jennings came to me when I needed her. Her words, like bullets down a rabbit hole, pierced me and spilled me out into the soft earth when I needed spilling.

This was going to be an essay.

This was going to be about Elizabeth Jennings’s poetry of her mental health. I couldn’t look at hers without acknowledging my own.

“I wish I knew
How I could help. But I have also been,
And am, your burden and your thread of pain.”6

 + + +



1. Suicides (for a psychiatrist)
2. Night Garden of the Asylum
3. A Depression
4. In A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room
5. Sequence in Hospital part I Pain
6. Suicides (for a psychiatrist)



John Barrios

John Barrios is a poet and musician. He has been part of the band Curious Hands for eight years. He graduated from Buffalo State College and chased his dreams in the Bay Area for a decade before landing on his literary feet in Portland, OR. Barrios was part of the original team at NAILED, and was a Contributing Editor until May 2014.